Richard III and the Murder in the Tower

   Posted by: Dorothea Preis   in

Peter A Hancock, Richard III and the Murder in the Tower.  The History Press, Stroud, 2009.  ISBN 978 0 7524 5148 0 (Hardback).

“The Murder in the Tower” of the title is not what most people might think of, ie. the Princes in the Tower.  Instead, this book offers a fascinating new perspective on the dramatic events of 13 June 1483 and the question why Richard had William Hastings executed in such an uncharacteristically rash way.  The author analyses all the various dramatis personae and their behaviour and possible motivations.
Hancock’s book covers the period from the death of Edward IV (9 April 1483) until Richard became king on 26 June 1483.  His in-depth analysis of the events during this period shows that up to 13 June Richard’s behaviour was completely consistent with his role as protector for Edward V.  However, after that date his behaviour changed and the author therefore investigates the events of that particular day thoroughly.

According to Hancock, Hastings’ execution was independent from any plots by the Woodvilles, to whom Hastings was known to be antagonistic, and /or Margaret Beaufort and John Morton.   This widely accepted theory he regards as just another More smoke screen.  Instead he argues that during the hour-long break of the council meeting on that fateful Friday the 13th , William Catesby revealed to Richard the previous marriage of Edward IV and Eleanor Talbot.  Catesby was related to Eleanor Talbot and very likely knew about it.  He also revealed that Edward’s close friend and chamberlain William Hastings was aware of this previous marriage.  Hancock reasons that Richard was so infuriated by Hastings’ omission to tell him that he had him executed immediately.  For Hancock the reason for Richard’s uncharacteristic behaviour was his strong sense of loyalty, which he felt was not reciprocated in this instance.  However, in addition to disappointed expectations of loyalty, I believe Richard’s later reign shows his strong focus on law and order, which would equally have been outraged by the fact that Hastings would have let the young Edward be crowned in spite of his illegitimacy.  This theory would explain why Hastings was the only one to be executed while his supposed co-conspirators Stanley and Morton got off lightly, with Stanley being back in favour two weeks later.

Hancock argues on the basis of the available texts that it was not – as is normally assumed – Bishop Stillington who originally revealed the pre-contract, but that it was Catesby.  Stillington only confirmed it on being questioned.  If, however, it was Catesby who first pointed it out to Richard, this would explain their very different careers.  If Stillington had been the informant, he received very little reward for his service.  Catesby on the other end shot soon after 13 June from relative obscurity to being one of the most important men in the realm (as shown by the “The Cat, the Rat, and Lovell our dog” rhyme, where he features in first position).  His knowledge would also explain why Henry Tudor had him executed three days after Bosworth as virtually the only man of substance, while nothing much happened to Stillington.

Catesby profited greatly from Hastings’ downfall and amassed an incredible amount of lands during Richard’s reign.  In this book Catesby is portrayed as a rather self-serving person, in his outlook closer to the Stanleys than Richard.

Hancock also believes that in the scuffle in the council chamber on 13 June Catesby saved Stanley.  At Bosworth as a lawyer he would not have been personally involved in the fighting, but might have been dispatched to guard Stanley’s son, Lord Strange.  In this position Catesby might have waited to see how the battle went before following the orders of having him killed.  In return for saving both Stanley and son he was hoping for support after the battle with Henry Tudor, as expressed by the curious sentence in his will:  “My lordis Stanley, Strange and all that blod help and pray for my soule for ye have not for my body as I trusted in you.”  Otherwise there is no obvious reason why he should expect any help from the Stanleys.

All in all it is a very well researched book giving a good overview about the critical period between Edward IV’s death and Richard becoming king.  And while the author has for some of his assumptions no direct proof, which he admits freely, there is also no proof to discredit them.  He discusses the sources on this period in detail.  The motives he ascribes to the various persons are highly plausible and make perfect sense as human behaviour.  And though the title of the book might be somewhat misleading, Hancock also takes a short look at the probability of the murder of princes.  I found it fascinating reading and could not put it down.

Highly recommended!